Hijab, Femininity and Feminism

Today ends my week in Hijab, though I intend to keep wearing it on weekends, at least until things settle down a bit, Islamophobia-wise.  So probably for quite a while, alas – though since I’m still really enjoying wearing it, at least when I can get it to stay on, this is hardly a sacrifice on my part.

The last few days in Hijab were actually pretty normal.  I think people at work had adjusted to the sight of me in a headscarf – and perhaps I had been mis-judging some of the earlier reactions I got, too, because a few people did mention that they’d found it really difficult to get used to seeing me in it.  I look very different in Hijab.

But I’m still me.

I’ve had some fascinating conversations over the week.  Without exception, my colleagues are supportive of action against racism, against Islamophobia, and against, basically, women being attacked on the basis of what they wear.  Hooray, my colleagues!  (Even the ones with a dubious sense of humour!)  It’s not that I thought they weren’t awesome, but I’ve heard some pretty terrible stories from other people wearing Hijab about what their friends, families and colleagues have said to them about it.  I’m very lucky.  I’ve also had several conversations with vehement atheists who feel that all public religious expression should be banned – but who were, on the other hand, quite in favour of my argument that nobody should get to decide what a woman wears other than the woman herself.  And I’ve had a lovely set of conversations with Muslim women, veiled and unveiled, who  were very kind about what I was doing.

Out and about, I’m still getting a fair few suspicious stares, but I’m also getting a fair number of people being super-nice to me – trying to compensate for Islamophobia, I think.  The most disheartening thing I’ve noticed is that when I smile at people on the street or on the tram, far fewer of them smile back than usual.  This makes me rather sad.

Over the last few days, as I’ve become more at home in Hijab, and more inclined to forget what I’m wearing, I’m noticing a few subtler things about how people react to me.  I seem to have become more feminine in the public eye, which is interesting.  It’s definitely the Hijab, too, and not my clothing – apart from my scarf, I’m wearing precisely the same outfits I normally wear in cooler weather.  But suddenly, a lot more people are offering me seats on trams or holding doors for me.  Alas, with my increased femininity, I’ve also noticed a drop in my perceived IQ – not from my colleagues or friends, but out and about, I am suddenly being treated to a lot more patronising behaviour than I’m used to.  Kindly meant, I might add, but, oh, it’s irritating.

Interestingly, I’m also finding that male acquaintances touch me more when I’m wearing Hijab.  Not inappropriately or intrusively, just I’m getting a lot more friendly pats on the shoulder from people who would not normally do that. I have no idea what that’s about.  Reminding themselves that it is still me?  Very odd.  I could theorise about female bodies being somehow viewed as public domain, so that if one conceals more, people unconcsiously compensate for this, but I don’t want to go all feminist theory on what I suspect is a completely unconscious thing.

And speaking of feminist theory…

Here’s the thing.  As I’ve said already, it turns out I really, really like wearing Hijab.  It feels like reclaiming my body as my own on some level, and I am finding an almost selfish pleasure in that (and how interesting that I think of it as a selfish thing, to keep myself to myself in this way).  Interestingly, while a number of the Muslim women I’ve spoken to have said that to them it is about Islamic law, and that’s it, others have expressed a similar feeling of satisfaction in getting to choose how much of themselves they reveal, and of being judged for their minds and their sense of humour, not their bodies.  So I’m certainly not a complete outlier here.

And, as I’ve also said, I feel very strongly as a feminist that what I wear and how much I choose to reveal or not reveal is absolutely nobody’s business but my own.  I don’t think the government should tell women that they must cover, and I don’t think the government should tell them that they must not cover.  I think policing women’s clothing is fundamentally sexist, no matter where it comes from.

But I’ve also heard from a number of feminists who feel that the Hijab is intrinsically sexist. There seem to be four assumptions underlying this idea:

1. Islam is inherently sexist, and thus wearing Hijab is representing a sexist religion.

2. There are countries where women are forced to wear the Burka or the Niqab, and thus wearing Hijab is in some way being complicit in their oppression.

3. Women have to wear Hijab, but men do not, thus wearing Hijab is a symbol of inequality

4. Covering yourself (by wearing Hijab, or by other means) is buying into a Patriarchal idea that women’s sexuality and bodies are somehow intrinsically provocative or unclean.

There is also, I think, a somewhat Western-centric idea that feminism can only be expressed in certain ways and that the freedom to uncover one’s body is somehow greater than the freedom to cover it.  I’m not expressing this very well, but there do seem to be some prescriptive ideas out there of what feminists can and can’t do (changing one’s name when getting married is another favourite).

I reject this idea.  To me, the fundamental basis of feminism is respecting women and that means respecting their choices – which, in turn, means ensuring that they have choices.  But let’s investigate some of these ideas more closely.

1. Islam is inherently sexist, and thus wearing Hijab is representing a sexist religion.  

I don’t intend to engage here with the idea that Islam is inherently sexist.  I’m not Muslim, and while I’ve read the Quran (in translation), I have not read any commentaries or Hadiths.  Quite aside from the fact that I don’t think it’s my place to pass judgment on someone else’s faith, I am not qualified to do so: I have neither studied Islam as a scholar, nor lived it as a believer, and scholarship and culture tend to shape the way religious texts are interpreted and applied.  Certainly, as a Christian, I know that simply reading the Bible from end to end is not going to tell you whether Christianity is sexist or not – generations of theologians have discussed how to interpret certain passages, individual churches have developed their own traditions, and from my own experience, I can assure you that it’s as possible to come to a strongly feminist interpretation of the Bible as it is to come to an utterly repressive, misogynist interpretation of it.  The number of different sects within Islam suggests that a similar situation applies there.  I did notice aspects of the Quran that made my inner feminist quite happy, just as I noticed aspects that I found problematic, regardless of their historical context.  I have the same issues with the Bible.  I am inclined to think that what makes a particular branch of a religion sexist is the people reading it.  But again, I’m no expert.

2. There are countries where women are forced to wear the Burka or the Niqab, and thus wearing Hijab is in some way being complicit in their oppression.  

Yes, there are countries wear this happens, and I agree that it is awful and sexist and something that should be stopped.  Muslim women who I have spoken to tend to agree about this, incidentally, and woman commented that this doesn’t make any kind of theological sense, either – if it is a virtuous thing to cover oneself, what virtue does one possibly gain from doing so under coercion?

I don’t think that choosing to wear what I want oppresses anyone else.  Well, assuming I’m not wearing something with offensive slogans all over it, or the equivalent.

I do think it’s sexist and potentially oppressive to force women to remove the Hijab or the Niqab or the Burqa.  A woman should get to choose what she wants to wear, be it burka or bikini and nobody else should have a say in this.  Period.  I feel extremely strongly about this, so I apologise if I’ve managed to say that fourteen times already!   But quite seriously, just because other governments are oppressive, doesn’t mean that we should be oppressive in the opposite direction – and it is oppressive, I think.  If you force a woman to uncover parts of her body that she feels are private, that’s not liberating, that’s… well, actually I think that’s assault, though that sounds rather extreme now that I’ve written it down.

But really, letting a woman control how much of her body she shows or does not show to others is such a fundamental principle of feminism that I find it hard to understand how there is an argument against it.

A variant of this type of argument, incidentally, is the one that says it’s OK for us to ban the Burqa and the Niqab, because if we go to Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Iran, we are forced to cover, because that’s their culture, and so it’s OK for us to say that wearing the Burqa and Niqab isn’t our culture.

This argument drives me right up the wall for three major reasons.  For one thing, we tend to view laws that force people to wear the Burqa or the Abayah are a bad thing – so why on earth would we want to use them as a precedent? For another thing, who defines what our culture is?  We are a nation of immigrants, with a variety of cultures, and that includes people who dress differently from us.  For a third thing, this sort of law is discriminatory – it singles out one group of women from one religion for special treatment.  And by doing so, it tacitly agrees to the proposition that there is something a bit different and inappropriate about Muslims.  We have enough of a problem with Islamophobia in this country without giving it this sort of quasi-legal encouragement.

3. Women have to wear Hijab, but men do not, thus wearing Hijab is a symbol of inequality

I’ll admit, I do have something of a problem with this. Yes, I realise that the Quran also exhorts men to dress modestly, but for some reason it’s always the women who have to make the bigger effort.  And, as I mentioned above, wearing the Hijab does seem to bring with it a lot of gender stereotypes with it.

I also worry that women who wear Niqab, for example, might find themselves less able to participate in work and recreation because of the restrictions of the garment – the long, flowing style of Hijab I wore this week meant no cycling for me, because it wasn’t practical.  While there are definitely more practical Hijab options, I’m not so sure about the Niqab.

Having said that, though, sometimes a scarf is just a scarf. I tend to think that in a country like Australia, where there is no government coercion controlling what women wear, a religious requirement to cover one’s hair – which tends to be the majority interpretation – is not a hugely onerous thing.  I’m not convinced that a Hijab is a greater symbol of inequality than high heels.  I know which I find easier to move in.  Once again, it comes down to choice.

Is it a perfect choice?  I think that depends on a lot of things.  I won’t claim that every Muslim family in Australia is happy and functional and that no women are being coerced into wearing Hijab, but I do think that when people start talking about banning the Hijab or even the Niqab to liberate women from religious oppression, they are being rather disengenuous.  For one thing, if a woman really is being forced to wear these garments, banning them will probably just confine her to the house, making her situation worse.  For another, this “liberation” assumes that no woman could possibly have chosen to wear such a garment freely – it’s all religious brainwashing – which is actually a pretty patronising thing to assume.  And if a woman has chosen to wear this garment of her own free will – you’ve just confined her to the house for exercising her freedom of expression.  Oops.

4. Covering yourself (by wearing Hijab, or by other means) is buying into a Patriarchal idea that women’s sexuality and bodies are somehow intrinsically provocative or unclean.

I must admit, one of the things I’ve found most uncomfortable this week is the supportive remarks I’ve received (and seen other women on the WISH group receiving) from Muslim men – and to a lesser extent, women – all about the beauty of modesty, and how the moon is still beautiful when it is behind a cloud, and a pearl is the more beautiful for being kept secretly in a shell, and so forth.


I know these remarks are kindly meant.  I know that they are intended to be supportive.  And, as it happens, I like being in my little oyster shell. But these comments do make me a little bit uncomfortable, because they seem to carry within them a lot of ideas about women’s virtue being tied to their modesty and chastity, and this doesn’t seem to be a two-way street.  I have not seen men in robes being lauded for their modesty.

So yeah, I do find this a little bit sexist.

(I also find it a little bit fascinating, because my love of wearing my Hijab has nothing to do with chastity and everything to do with enjoying my ownership of myself.)

I’ve also heard the argument that the Hijab is in fact a sign that in Islam women are viewed as higher than men, since it is Muslim women who are chosen to be the visible face of Islam in the wider world.  While I can see the appeal of this argument, I have to admit that from my western feminist perspective, it sounds a lot like those ‘angel in the home’ ideas of womanhood that the Victorians were so keen on.  I’m just as wary of arguments that say that women are inherently superior to men than I am of those that claim the opposite.

Is this how all Muslims see women who veil?  I doubt it.  I imagine there are as many opinions on this subject as there are Muslims.


I’d like to return to the idea that there is One True Way to be a feminist, and that this includes things like keeping one’s maiden name, or not wearing Hijab.

Honestly, I don’t think that wearing Hijab is a feminist act, and I don’t think it is an anti-feminist act, either.  I think there are a lot of ways to wear it, and some are amazingly empowering, and others are incredibly oppressive.  It’s got nothing to do with the garment and everything to do with why it’s being worn and who is choosing to wear it.

I think there are a lot of ways to be feminist, too.  To my mind, there are certain minimum standards – respect for women and their right to self-determination being pretty essential as a starting point – but there are a lot of different ways to get there.  At the picnic last week, we talked a lot about Western culture being quite focused on the virtues of independence and individualism, while the Middle-Eastern cultures that have tended to shape and be shaped by the practice of Islam are more focused on families and interdependence.  Many of the feminist movements in Islam have similarly been shaped by these cultures, and have thus taken on a different shape to that of Western feminism.  This really should not come as a shock to people.

Feminism was once described as being the novel idea that women are people.  And the thing about viewing women – Muslims, feminists, or Muslim feminists – as people, is that you have to start seeing them as individuals who don’t necessarily all share the same views.

What would an Islamic feminist, or indeed a feminist who happens to be Muslim, think about those oyster and pearl comments?  Or indeed, about how feminism intersects with Islam?  Well, I imagine that would depend on the person in question.  But rather than attempting to speak for her, I think it is more than time that I got out of her way, and let you meet her for herself.


From Wood Turtle, who blogs about Islam, motherhood and feminism: Feminism is an intrinsic part of Islam as much as patriarchy. Islam teaches equality, but it was revealed to pagan Arabs in “a language they would understand.” That language was predominantly male-centric, and has since been used by men (and women) to help promote patriarchy and oppressive realities for women. Which is why I also believe that it is necessary to have continued feminist readings and interpretations of the Qur’an.

From The Fatal Feminist, who blogs about Islam, feminism, and politics: God gave women freedom. We don’t need the permission of men to live freely

From Mona Eltahawy, a journalist and public speaker: I’m no fool. I know that terrible violations of women’s rights are committed in the name of my faith. But Islam belongs to me too.

From Randa Abdel-Fattah, author of eight books including the awesome Does My Head Look Big in This?, which I also thoroughly recommend: As a Muslim feminist, I value agency, choice and autonomy. Moreover, I have deep conviction that these values are integral to the Islamic tradition, and are not simply ideals imported from the West. But I also value integrity and truth, which is why I, along with many others, are not afraid to say that the Islamic justifications offered by those men who view women as inferior, or who construct their relationships with women in terms that define them as sexual temptresses, are based on corrupted interpretations of Islam which place religion at the service of men’s cupidity.

From Meti’s Blog on Muslim Feminists: Two commonly held beliefs exist in the Muslim community: 1) the belief that every edict in the Quran is timeless; 2) and that every statement in the Quran is a religious law. These beliefs have given rise to the need for some modern Muslims (often called by others and themselves as ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ Muslims) to indulge in new theological debates […] Most Islamic feminists who attempt to reinterpret the Quran are either Western or have been raised/educated in the West, and fault the classical interpretations for their “patriarchal slant”. Their argument is that although Quran was revealed in 609 AD, it is a text of guidance for all people of all times, hence contested verses (particularly Quran: 4:34; 4:3; 2:222; 4:11-12; 24:31) must have always had a progressive and feminist intent but were misinterpreted by patriarchal scholars to control women.

From Ruwayda Mustafah Rabar, a Kurdish writer and activist: What I am trying to say is that there are several feminist movements, and all of them have to be understood in their own context. As a Muslim woman, I strongly believe in the Holy Qur’an and prophetic precedent, but I avidly deny prejudiced interpretations of these sources of knowledge. Primarily because female scholarship in the last decade has been limited, and it seems they have been intimidated to follow the scholarly precedents for the sake of maintaining similar thought. Feminism for many women is not a man-hating concept, nor is it one that seeks to undermine family cohesion, or sabotage the male-figure. But it’s a concept that seeks to equalise the position of women without asserting that our differences both biologically and emotionally amount to different treatment.

At Life of a Muslim Feminist, Sabina Khan-Ibara  notes that: Some think that if you are a Muslim you cannot be a Feminist because they think that “Muslim Feminist” is a contradictory phrase. This I cannot even begin to comprehend. To me, Islam advocates equal rights for all.
 Others argue that by stating that we are Muslims, there is no need to add “Feminist” to the label since Islam is innately feminist. 

On the same site, Halima adds: What needs to be understood here, from the Muslim point of view, is that Muslim Feminists are not challenging the very foundations of Islam whatsoever. We are not saying that Allah is wrong, that the Qur’an is wrong, that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) was wrong. No, what we are saying is that Muslims are wrong. Muslims are wrong if they think that women are here to cook, clean, make babies and serve man’s every need. Muslims are wrong if they think that forced marriages are acceptable, that honour-killings are acceptable, that a life of parental oppression is acceptable.

If you prefer shorter snippets to essays, check out the Twitter hashtag #lifeofamuslimfeminist, where any number of women are expressing their views on the subject (the most recent Tweet when I checked the list a moment ago simply stated “Women are neither pearls nor lollipops”, which is one answer, at least, to my question above).

If you’d like to read a very thorough and somewhat academic essay on Islamic Feminism, this interview with Ziba Mir-Hosseini is a very good one.

And if you want to just be inspired by some very cool Muslim women, check out Bad Ass Muslimahs on Tumblr.

Thank you for reading this series. I’m well aware that I am treading on shaky ground all over the place here – as a non-Muslim woman writing about Hijab, it’s awfully easy to stray into colonialist thinking, or into stereotype.  If I’ve got things wrong here or elsewhere, I’m very happy to hear from anyone with corrections.  And if you have comments to add, I’d very much like to hear them!  All comments to this blog are screened, so be aware that yours may not turn up immediately.

9 thoughts on “Hijab, Femininity and Feminism

  1. Dear Cate,

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts via your blog. I started following you for your election party summaries, but have stayed because your entries challenge and inform me.

    I have found the idea of wearing hijab in support problematic as I fear it’s link to women being responsible for virtue, modesty & honour of others. I like how you have bravely put your thoughts out and examined them. I’m going to read the references you gave and try and challenge my own too.

    • Thank you, Ruth, for reading! I’m glad you find my entries useful. I agree that it is definitely problematic when people start making modesty all about women being responsible for the actions of men, and I’ve certainly seen hints of that around the place even in the Australian context. I’m not comfortable with that, either.

      But then on the other hand, you have women in the same cultural context who find the Hijab empowering – so which point of view is more important? Who gets to choose the narrative that goes with it? I honestly don’t know the answer to this, but for me, it makes yet another reason to stay right out of telling women what to wear!

  2. This is beautiful Catherine, your ‘Hijab Teacher’ sounds very familiar. I had a conversation with her, where she said a very lovely lady came into work at (IBC) asking about Hijab and she described your exact colours!!

    I’m so glad to have stumbled across this blog…its so beautiful! I’m a Muslim and I wear the hijab and again you have brought me warmth!

    La trobe uni in bundoora is having a hijab booth on 21st of october from 12-2 to promote the WISH campaign as well as clear up any misconceptions of hijab and to have a friendly girl-to-girl chat…come down if you can 🙂

    again..this series has been wonderful…i’ve linked all my friends and colleagues

    Kind regards

    • Hawai, your comment made me so happy! I am glad you have enjoyed this series of posts – they are some of the most personal things I’ve written here, but I also realise that this topic is even more personal for a lot of other people, so I have been very afraid of being appropriative or offensive.

      I wish I could come to your booth tomorrow, but unfortunately I work full time in Parkville, so it just isn’t possible. Hope it’s a great day!

      As for my hijab teacher – I don’t like naming names of non public figures on this blog without permission (if someone is going to be nasty because of something I’ve written, I don’t want anyone else to be targeted), but It probably is he same woman. I doubt there are too many women out there buying bright pink and purple Hijab at the IBC, and I am almost certainly the only one who brought baked goods to share when she did so…

  3. As a muslim feminist, the pearl perl and lollypop comments make me cringe with disgust. The ones of men telling women how pretty they look in the hijab do too, the one given by women a bit less so. I think the ones that get up my skin the most are the ones of men critiquing the women’s hijab. God I hate those people.

    • I don’t know if it’s any comfort, but I understand there are similar memes going around conservative Christian culture. Which tells me it’s a people thing, not a religion thing!

      Obviously, I haven’t been getting critiqued on my Hijab. As for the compliments – lollipop-related or otherwise – yes, some of them make me uncomfortable. But since I am outside the religion – and the commenters know that – I find that I can accept these comments as the act of kindness that they are intended to be, even if it does also tell me that I’d probably disagree with this person on a lot of things if we had a longer conversation!

      (Actually, the ones saying things like ‘you look pretty in Hijab’ sound more to me like an expression of the wider cultural idea that women do or should worry about their appearance – and so it’s important to reassure and reward people who are going outside the cultural norm, appearance-wise, that they are still pretty.)

      I think I’d feel a lot less able to do that if I were in my own religious context.

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